RED ARMY (USA/Russia/12A/84mins)
Directed by Gabe Polsky. Starring Slava Fetisov, Viktor Tikhonov, Anatoli Tarasov.
Charing the rise and fall of the Soviet Union’s legendary Red Army ice hockey team, as filmmaker Gabe Polsky talks to former players, journalists and a former KGB employee, we get to see those early breakthrough years, as coach Anatoli Tarasov creates a winning team. We also see how important the team was to Stalin, and how the sport itself came to regarded as the national sport by the Soviet people. The glory years were truly glorious on the ice, even if life off the ice wasn’t quite so rosy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the 1990s, the star players started to find the lure of the Yankee dollar a little too great…
THE VERDICT: After the inevitable montage of newsreel footage reminds us all how America and Russia have never been quite the best of buddies, Gabe Polsky’s exploration of just why and how the Soviet Union dominated ice hockey on the world stage for so long seems to get off to a shaky start when an insistent line of questioning as Red Army icon Slava Fetisov concentrates instead on finishing a text ends with a middle-finger from the interviewee. A stereotypical Russian, or a stereotypical American? Turns out, thankfully, these guys are friends, Polsky, the son of Russian immigrants, having played ice hockey for Yale.
From there, we go deep inside the history of that Red Army, Stalin believing that the country’s hockey team would represent Soviet Superiority. Which meant they would have to kick America’s ass. Again and again. And again.
The interviews reveal as much about life in Russia at the time as it does the US/USSR rivalry and the sheer brilliance of the Red Army. Much of the latter was down to coach Anatoli Tarasov, a quiet genius of the game who was smart enough to include advice from chess grandmaster Anatoly Karpov and exercises from the Bolshoi dancers. It makes for a thrilling ride, not only through the glorious skill on display, but all that other dumb stuff that surrounds sports. Like, you know, politics, glory, celebrities.
Review by Paul Byrne

Red Army
Review by Paul Byrne
4.0A Thrilling Ride
  • filmbuff2011

    Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, entertaining sports documentary Red Army is about so much more than just ice hockey. Starting in the late 1970s, it charts the story of the famed Red Army, the Soviet Union’s seemingly unbeatable 5-man ice hockey team. Training intensely for 11 months of the year under a strict Communist regime, their lightning-quick style bewildered their American and Canadian opponents, who often didn’t see what was coming. This is mostly told through the perspective of key hockey player Viacheslav Fetisov, with contributions from the other team members. Of course, a lot of their victories were used as propaganda against the decadent West. But that didn’t stop the Red Army from having fun and adapting to liberal American attitudes. They got into scraps on the rink with their opponents and some of them even defected to America during games. This was truly the Cold War in miniature, played out to an American audience who later embraced these players when they played for the other side… Gabe Polsky’s documentary begins tellingly with archive footage of Ronald Reagan in movie star mode, and then moves on to introduce us to Fetisov. An engaging, charismatic but cautious interviewee, he opens up about his experiences behind the Iron Curtain. Towards the end, we find out that he’s been Vladimir Putin’s Sports Minister since 2002. Interesting – he doesn’t talk like a politician. You don’t have to know anything about ice hockey to appreciate Red Army – the historical backdrop of the Cold War is the key component, rather than the sport itself. When you have a former KGB agent being upstaged by his young grand-daughter, then you know that this is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Polsky is careful though not to trivialise the tensions between East and West, moving the story forward into more recent times to give it a more rounded, modern relevance. Fast-moving, funny and with just the right amount of emotional weight, Red Army is a fascinating insight into the mindset of the players during a crucial period of 20th Century history. ****